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What do you do when there's no app for that?

John Cox | Aug. 10, 2012
Companies and IT groups are scrambling to find or build well-designed mobile apps to realize the full promise of mobilized business processes.

As of June 2012, there were 237,000 iPad apps listed in the App store, many of them priced at 99 cents or even free. Yet very few of them let companies actually do business -- take customer orders, update inventory, submit pharmacy prescriptions, or manage 401K retirement accounts.

In sort, companies are bogging down in a flood of apps they can't use. And the ones they can use from the online app catalogs often lack the technical and customer support that both IT groups, and frontline employees, are used to.

Software vendors that traditionally supply enterprise line of business software for servers and PCs now face a learning curve in adapting these applications, especially their user interfaces, for touch screens. And if corporate IT groups try to build their own apps, they run into the same learning curve. Some companies are reporting unexpected jumps in mobile app development costs, as a result.

Here's what companies are doing:

+ creating new bottom-up app feedback loops, partly to identify, evaluate and spread the word about catalog apps, but also to capture user-driven app ideas.

+ forging new relationships with key software suppliers, to sync enterprise requirements and schedules with those of the vendor; one new option: negotiating for access to the vendor's source code to create custom changes, and speed mobile deployment.

+ reprioritizing application development and spending, away from PCs to new mobile operating systems, and to integrating them with backend systems.

+ devoting more time, money and expertise to designing highly-usable touchscreen UIs for these next-generation mobile enterprise apps.

+ re-examing and sometimes redesigning business processes to better exploit mobile devices and apps.

Custom built mobile apps for the iPad were the main focus at the outset for The Ottawa Hospital (TOH), in Ottawa, Ontario. Shortly after the iPad was launched, the hospital decided to buy more than 3,000 of them to deploy a mission-critical, electronic physician order entry system, which lets doctors order diagnostic imaging, lab tests and medications. The first two rolled out in late 2001 with the help of a contract software development company. One condition of the contract: Hospital CIO Dale Potter's insistence that the company have a full-time UI ergonomics expert assigned to the project.

The third app, for medications, neatly shows how mobility is disrupting conventional software development. The hospital uses on an open architecture clinical information system, Oacis, now part of Telus Health Solutions. The vendor planned to introduce mobile device access to the repository in 2014, at least a year later than the hospital needed it. Instead of waiting, TOH forged an unprecedented deal. Telus agreed to classify the hospital as a research-and-development site for the software, allowing the hospital's coders to access the full source code for native modifications.


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